In February of 1923, several young men, mostly in their 20s, military veterans of Word War I from Lawrence and Cedarhurst, came together and established the Lawrence-Cedarhurst American Legion Post 339.
Nine months later the members of the newly created post found themselves embroiled in a small but widely written about controversy.
The Gold Star mother of Lawrence Wood, one of the nine veterans whose names are on a plaque in Cedarhurst Park in memory of the WWI soldiers who died in service, wanted the Ku Klux Klan to lay a wreath at the memorial on Nov. 29, 1923 during the monument’s dedication ceremony.
At the time, the KKK, which began in the South as an organization that promoted race prejudice, was enjoying a resurgence on the Long Island. Less than a year later, on Sept. 20, 1924, a Klan parade attracted 30,000 spectators to Freeport and the procession was led by the Village Police Chief, John M. Hartman.
One of Long Island’s first “klaverns” was founded in Freeport in September of 1922. In 1920, the U.S. population was 100.5 million, according to the Census Bureau and nearly 5 million people were Klan members. The group positioned themselves as anti-alcohol as Prohibition took hold across the nation.
“That day,” said current Post 339 Commander Syd Mandelbaum, referring to Nov. 29, “our post voted not to lay our wreath down unless the KKK’s wreath was removed.”
A physical battle ensued as American Legion members sought to keep the KKK wreath away from the memorial.
Jerry Richter, a Cedarhurst native now living in Reading, Pa., called Mandelbaum to find out if an oft-repeated family story was true. Richter’s father, John, was a carpenter who lived in Cedarhurst. He served in the Navy during WWI and later was in the Seabees in the South Pacific during WWII.
The story is that John was one of two men who ripped the KKK wreath down. A Nov. 30, 1923 New York Times article reported that three men, “two soldiers and a sailor dodged through the ropes, seized the wreath and tried to make off with it.” Klan members took off after them, other post members joined the chase and the scuffle was on.
“I give credit to my American Legion forbearers, they were in their early 20s as they served when they were 17, 18, 19, and when they came back they just as easily fought for democracy,” said Mandelbaum, who said that John Richter was one of the members who grabbed the wreath.
Police tried to quell the struggle through persuasion, but the battle was getting out of hand according to accounts, until then Colonel Cornelius Wickersham, the post’s first commander, quieted things down as he suggested that the controversial wreath be left with him until the ceremony was completed.
Wickersham served in the U.S. Army first as part of the incursion into Mexico in a failed attempt to capture Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa under General John Pershing, and then in WWI and II. He earned the rank of brigadier general.
Wickersham’s father, George, was Attorney General (1909-’13) under President William Taft. Both Wickersham’s were lawyers and partners at the New York City firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft.
Rabbi Dr. Isaac Landman, the spiritual leader of Temple Israel, which was then in Far Rockaway, before moving to Lawrence, started to speak, but was interrupted by a young man who shouted, “My brother’s name is on that monument; I want that Klan wreath put back there!”
Based on the New York Times account, a hush fell over the crowd that was estimated at 1,500 people. Then Landman strode to the ropes by the monument and thrust a finger at the young man and said: “I tell you neither your brother nor any of those other boys whom we honor today died with America should be torn by racial hatred and religious conflict.”
Landman spoke for a few more minutes and left the crowd applauding and cheering his words. Klan members dashed for their wreath and once again battled the post members. The police intervened and the Klansmen withdrew.
Temple Israel’s current spiritual leader, Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, said that it took an act of “courage and righteous” for Jewish people to take a stand, especially against a “manifestation of evil” such as the KKK that had a strong base. “[Rabbi Landman] was following an age-old mission of the Jews, at great personal peril, to speak out against injustice,” Rosenbaum said.